(Photograph taken at a YMCA in Virginia.)
I took this photo a month or two ago at my daughter’s swim meet, held at the YMCA of a small Virginia city. Of course, I know that the “Y” is a Christian organization, no problem. At our local Y, there is a “scripture bowl” on the counter—also not a problem because everyone can sign up or not, read the scripture quotes or not. Nevertheless, I was struck by how this quote from Corinthians, a quote displayed in the entryway and framing the experience you’ll have inside the Y, privileges faith over knowledge. Sight, or knowledge, doesn’t supersede faith; sight doesn’t even walk alongside faith; sight is erased, eliminated as a way of knowing and existing in the world. In my own naïve conceptualization of the world, I still do not understand how some religious, faith-based folks choose to ignore millennia of beautiful and useful discoveries, one built on top of the next, helping human beings to live, survive, and understand in more complex ways the world around us. Shouldn’t we consider this sight, or knowledge, part and parcel of the wonder of the world, which I assume is captured in faith? I ruminate on this here in order to grapple with the Trump administration’s imposed censorship, a move which seems to move a nation founded on the principle of separation of church and state to faith-based language, rather than evidence-based or science-based language, in official governmental contexts.
Not only have we been hit this week by the Senate Republicans’ passage of the tax scam, but also by news that the Trump administration has prohibited the use of seven words in official documents being prepared for the 2018 budget. These seven words are DIVERSITY, ENTITLEMENT, EVIDENCE-BASED, FETUS, SCIENCE-BASED, TRANSGENDER, and VULNERABLE. A few things I like about these words are: (1) they are words that we get to use how and whenever the hell we want; (2) “diversity” might remind some people that there are other people in the world who might be unlike them; (3) “entitlement” recalls that we all have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; (4) “evidence-based” and “science-based” demonstrate the profound power of scientific research and its importance for the well-being of human beings and the earth; (5) “fetus” distinguishes between beings that cannot survive outside a uterus and those that can; (6) “transgender” ruptures notions of binary approaches to sex and gender; (7) “vulnerable” comes from the Latin word for “wounding” and thus exposes the extent to which certain populations can be harmed in the face of dangerous policies, procedures, and tax bills. Think about it: the prohibition of these seven words provides linguistic evidence (oops, sorry, just call it “proof”) of the Trump administration’s fear of those who live in disadvantaged socioeconomic conditions, non-Christians, people not born in the United States, people of color born in the United States, people who refuse binary gender categories, women and their wombs, science and scientists, and the Earth.
The Washington Post gives specifics about the challenges for some agencies and departments in avoiding these terms that define some or much of the work they do: “At the CDC, several offices have responsibility for work that uses some of these words. The National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention is working on ways to prevent HIV among transgender people and reduce health disparities. The CDC’s work on birth defects caused by the Zika virus includes research on the developing fetus.” Can you imagine being an expert on, say, socioeconomic disparities and not being allowed to use the word “socioeconomic” or “disparity” in your research? Let’s say you treat patients with prostate cancer, but you’ve been forbidden from saying either “prostate” or “cancer.” I think our federal government has become a veritable poetry workshop as it asks us to use metaphor, simile, metonymy, and other rhetorical devices instead of precise terms for important concepts. Kudos to Sarah Freligh and Amy Lemmon, who have captured this idea through their CDC Poetry Project. If the past year has taught us nothing else, we have learned that we have to signal every single day the lies and hypocrisies of our government officials. I am particularly struck by Trump’s, DeVos’, and Sessions’ calls to increased free speech, especially on college campuses, even as the administration prohibits the use of precise language in federal departments whose work affects us all. (*See this Gender Shrapnel Blog post on free speech.)
Last night I attended the town hall meeting of Virginia House Delegate Ben Cline. We are all grateful to Delegate Cline for continuing to hold town hall meetings, especially in light of a five-year chase to find Representative Bob Goodlatte anywhere in the federal district he represents. As Goodlatte steps down (only a couple of decades after he promised to), and Ben Cline plans to run for his seat, we can only hope that the one good thing Cline has going for him—a willingness to listen to and speak with all of his constituents—remains intact. While Cline certainly has not started to censor language, he has transported his religious beliefs to the center of his legislative motivations and work. When asked why his keenness for deregulation in business and jobs doesn’t translate to a deregulation in the control of women’s bodies, Cline could only reply, “Well, I’m pro-life.” This reply, bald and unelaborated, basically tells his constituents, “For we walk by faith, not by sight.”
At this point, many of our government representatives are using the United States Constitution as a weapon against the people they have been elected to represent. Freedom of speech expands hate speech rights (and, I would argue, subsequent acts of violence) and, in the case of this week’s CDC news, reduces freedom of expression in a whole host of realms. The events of Charlottesville tell us that the freedom to assemble is only for selected groups, and the right to bear arms enhances the public power of those selected groups. Freedom of religion is supposed to protect us from one, singular, state-imposed religion, but in fact we have become a Christian state, with real repercussions for those who choose to walk by another faith, or by no faith, or by a combination of faith and knowledge. It’s time for our elected officials to recognize diversity, including among transgender individuals, embrace appropriate entitlements, understand vulnerability, take stock in evidence-based and science-based research, and give science-based context to the term ‘fetus.’